Well-integrated technology opens social networks for students and allows children to develop key social skills, according to two recent studies conducted by researchers at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Researchers X. Christine Wang and Cynthia Carter Ching have based both of their reports, titled “Social Construction of Computer Experience in a First Grade Classroom: Social Processes and Mediating Artifacts,” and “Digital Photography and Journals in a Kindergarten-First-Grade Classroom: Toward Meaningful Technology Integration in Early Childhood Education,” on the theoretical framework introduced by Lev Vygotsky.

Vygotsky’s theory states that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition, or the mental process of knowing–including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment.

As Wang and Ching explain, “from a Vygotskian perspective…the children are engaged in valuable social construction…of their classroom experience and culture by engaging with well-integrated technologies, such as computers or a digital camera.”

In their first study, supported by a dissertation grant awarded to Ching by the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, both researchers set out to investigate young children’s social experiences with a computer. The study was conducted over a span of one school year in a first grade classroom at a public school in a Midwestern town. Researchers used video, field notes, and interviews to capture information.

Students were mainly from working and middle-class families, and the average class size for first grade is 18 in the school and the district. There were 10 boys, six girls, two African-American children, and two Asian children. All students were between six and seven years old. There was one classroom teacher.

Most of the children had a computer at home, but two did not. Among those who used a computer at home, the children played educational games an average of 15-30 minutes per day.

There were two computers in the classroom. Computer 1 had an internet connection and a printer. It was a newer iMac and had current educational games such as Nanosaur and Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo. Computer 2, also a Mac, was older and did not have the newest games. Students mostly used Computer 1 and only used Computer 2 while waiting for Computer 1.

Although the teacher reported feeling comfortable using computers, she did not see herself using a computer in a “truly integrated way.” Therefore, there was no explicit computer curriculum, and the computers were used primarily as an enrichment, or free-choice, activity for students.

Students had choice-time for an hour each day, and student names were pulled randomly from a mug. The selected students would one by one put their names under the activity they chose. Activity choices included Computer 1, Computer 2, picture-taking, math enrichment, painting, writing, and reading. Only two students could use a computer at one time, and a timer was used to limit each student’s time on the computer to only five minutes. Those students not being the first to select computers as their first choice activity had to sign up on a waiting list and do other activities while waiting for their turns.

The researchers observed that every time free choice was offered, Computer 1 was always chosen first by every student in the class with no exceptions–even when new activities were introduced. Also, children crowded around Computer 1, while rarely did anyone play at Computer 2.

At first Wang and Ching believed that students did not want to use Computer 2 because it didn’t have as many interesting games, but after a peer debriefing, they found that “young children like to play together, and simply getting to play at Computer 1 was not their only motivation. Instead, playing at Computer 1 became a social event in which everyone was part of the group that tried to reach a higher level of the game.”